Karabakh Mosques Restored
Armenian experts are finishing the restoration of the two mosques in the town of Shushi (known to Azerbaijanis as Shusha) that were damaged during the war over Nagorny Karabakh.
Efforts are focused on the large Sunni Upper Mosque in the centre of the town, next to the main market - a striking building of multi-coloured stone that dates back to 1884. This follows the restoration of the older and smaller Shia Lower Mosque and the medressa in the town last year.
Both projects were organised by the French branch of Shen, an Armenian charitable organisation.
Architect Oshin Yeghiazariants, who is overseeing the restoration work, says he wants to see the mosque become a cultural centre containing an art gallery, where representatives of different religions can meet.
The town, once one of the great cultural and trading centres of the Caucasus, had an Azerbaijani majority population in Soviet times. It fell into Armenian hands in 1992 at the height of the war over Nagorny Karabakh, and most of its buildings are still semi-ruined and abandoned.
The towering 19th century Ghazanchetsots church in the town has already been restored.
Following the end of the Karabakh conflict in 1994, another fight began between Armenian and Azerbaijani ethnographers and historians each claiming that the other side was systematically destroying monuments that had belonged to the other community.
It remains a highly controversial subject, but attitudes are changing slowly. In June, a joint delegation of Armenian and Azerbaijani intellectuals visited Nagorny Karabakh, Baku and Yerevan, inspecting all the cultural monuments.
The Karabakh Armenians’ restoration of the two mosques - the two main Muslim monuments in Nagorny Karabakh - was designed to refute Azerbaijani allegations and generate good publicity for the Armenian side.
Sarasar Sarian, who fled from Baku but now lives in Shushi, said, “When it comes to the monuments of Muslim architecture being restored in Shushi, I think that by respecting the culture of our neighbouring people we are showing a positive example which others ought to follow.”
Slava Sarkisian, who heads the department for the protection and study of monuments in Nagorny Karabakh’s culture ministry, told IWPR that there are around 10,000 monuments in Karabakh and an inventory of them is underway that will last many years.
Sarkisian said that around ten of the monuments were Muslim. “It makes no difference for us whether it’s a Christian or Muslim monument,” he said. “We take the same approach to them - they are all under the protection of our state and have a historical and cultural value.
“I couldn’t say today that Christian monuments are in a better condition than Muslim ones. There are villages where ancient Christian buildings are being used as cow-sheds. I think it’s mainly a matter of people not caring or being badly brought up.”
The de facto Karabakh Armenian authorities say that the Muslim cultural monuments are under their protection.
“In conditions of conflict in our region, adopting a respectful attitude to monuments of ‘not our own’ culture can serve as a means of establishing trust between the conflicting parties,” Masis Mailian, deputy foreign minister, and losing candidate in the recent presidential elections, told IWPR.
Manushak Titanian, an architect and head of the non-governmental organisation Art for Peace and Development, has been studying the Muslim monuments and intends to publish a booklet with photographs of them. He says their deterioration is largely the result of neglect.
“I have an extremely positive attitude to the idea of restoring the Shushi mosque, because as an architect I think that a variety of cultures in one town makes it very attractive, both for its residents and for many tourists,” she said.
Karine Ohanian is a correspondent for Demo newspaper in Nagorny Karabakh. She is a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network. The terminology used in this article was chosen by IWPR, not by the author.